After more than a year of writing this column, I am more than aware of my proclivity to burying ledes. Three weeks ago, we took the first stab at this topic - the controversies of the 1956 Sugar Bowl and the seasons that surrounded it. But, with all the sideshows out of the way, we never really got to what happened in that fateful bowl game. So, what exactly went down in New Orleans on that fateful day?
It was a team effort just to get all the major players involved with the game into the stadium on that day.
Sparing you all from the forced sports metaphor does not make it less apt. As we saw a few weeks ago, Georgia Tech wanted to play the bowl game. The students, administration, and faculty vehemently supported the football team. Yet the wills of the state, led by the governor, did not want the Yellow Jackets in New Orleans. A hefty chunk of the population of the host city didn’t want integrated football on their doorstep, either. All of this in the wake of not just Brown vs. Board of Education a few years earlier, but the Montgomery Bus Boycott just a few short months before, and it’s little surprise that tensions were high coming into the game.
The questions of whether Bobby Grier should be allowed to play or whether Tech would be permitted to travel to play was forcefully put to rest by members of the Pitt community, civil rights leaders, and Georgia Tech students, athletes, and faculty. When the sun set on January 1st, 1956, the Rose Bowl may have quietly been one of the most diverse bowl games in history, but the Sugar Bowl became the first integrated bowl game to be played in the Deep South.
Of course, it was surprising that Pittsburgh had even been offered the opportunity to play Tech in the first place, as a team on the fence with three losses already. However, with West Virginia and Navy disappointing in previous showings, and reticence to schedule another all-SEC Sugar Bowl by pairing Ole Miss with the Yellow Jackets, it was the Panthers, with losses all to highly respectable teams, who would win out in the end.
It seems ludicrous, in hindsight, that this was even an issue - Tech had played integrated teams before - but many correctly perceived this game as a bellwether for the future of integration in the United States. And so they played, and the game generated nearly as much controversy as the team selection.
The game was a defensive struggle through and through. The seven points Tech scored in the first quarter would be the only ones accrued all afternoon. However, Tech was only in the position to score in the first place due to a questionable pass interference call in their favor. Unsurprisingly, the penalty was on Grier. Of course, time sharpens opinions, and there is a camp that decided that it was purely Southern referee bias that decided the game for Georgia Tech through calls like this. However, both teams agreed to the intersectional official contingent beforehand, and the call was more inconclusive than blatantly bad, if the limited film is accepted to be a good angle. Regardless, the play was controversial, and absolutely figured into the final score. Tech wouldn’t complete a pass all game, a phrase at once warm and familiar to current fans, yet also dated. After a helpful offsides call, the quarterback, Wade Mitchell, was able to sneak it into the end zone for six and add another by way of the extra point. That would be all, as far as scoring goes.
That’s not to say it was smooth sailing from there, at all. The Jackets may have had a helpful bit of turnover luck, such as the fumble that set up their only score of the game, but Pittsburgh ran Tech ragged in comparison, moving up and down the field, yet never finding their way across the goal line. They found themselves the deepest in the Tech red zone one could possibly be and not have six points with time expiring on fourth down heading into halftime. If the Grier interference was the most controversial play of the game, then Franklin Brooks’ goal line stand keeping Pitt out of the end zone before halftime was the most consequential. Pitt’s next two drives in the third quarter got more sloppy as the clock ticked away and the consequences of not scoring to close the half became more and more dire.
Tech wouldn’t score on either opportunity, and it took a lucky shirt-tail tackle to get Pittsburgh out of bounds with ten yards separating them from a chance to tie the game. The clock, which had been malfunctioning the whole game, was reported by different players as being on different times. There was time for two, maybe three plays, the thought went. Pitt gained five yards. The officials waved their hands. Game over, with the Panthers threatening just five yards from the end zone. In a highly suspect Sugar Bowl, Georgia Tech was crowned the winner.
Just as the Georgia state government granted Tech permission to play the game eventually on the condition that all games within the state of Georgia be segregated, the Louisiana legislature mandated that teams in the Sugar Bowl come from more local origins, rather than be intersectional. A legacy of this rule can be traced to the current SEC/Big 12 tie-ins in non-playoff years, oddly enough, as ACC, SEC, and Southwest Conference - a forerunner to the modern Big 12 - would dominate the next few decades of Sugar Bowl play.
Ultimately, Brooks would be named the MVP of the game. His goal line stand, as mentioned, proved the difference between a tie and a win for the Jackets, and that’s about as clear cut of a contribution as you can ask for. He would go on to play in the NFL before returning to the Flats under Pepper Rodgers, where he was being groomed as the successor to Tech’s great quarterback, if not exceptional coach. However, asbestos-related complications would bring about advanced lung cancer, and his tragic death - he never used tobacco and other common causes of lung cancers - would be one of the impetuses to the removal of asbestos from most common spaces in America. The bowl would go down as another great Bobby Dodd bowl win in a long list of them, and another shining example of his tough and stingy defense.
The most prominent domino to fall from the bowl, though, was obviously the story of Bobby Grier. It is by no small accident that this bowl game had a profound impact on the hearts and minds of many in Atlanta and across the Southeast. Perhaps this exposure to inequality, on a grand stage like big-time football, allowed them to finally rethink their deep-seated antipathies. Or, perhaps, they so desperately wanted to watch football, that they would riot for it. I’m inclined to believe the former to be more true. With a positive view of human nature, it is easier to believe that the populace would be moved by sport, by this egregious display of oblique and unwarranted antipathy, than to abandon their hypocritical views temporarily to watch some football. And for that, I thank Grier. For his lasting impact on the school, the state, and the sport, and being the catalyst that may have inspired some people to think a little differently, even if their initial motivator was college football. The power of sports to better society is an underrated and understated benefit from the American sports hierarchy as it stands. Sports can be a vehicle to enact positive change. And that yet another special trait from the unique position of high-profile athletics at major universities in America.
If you have any events or ideas you would like to see investigated, leave a comment below and I will be sure to look into adding it to the schedule. What is old is new again, or at least liable to be featured in the future. Thank you for reading this latest edition of From the Rumble Seat’s Rearview Mirror.